"On irait marcher dans sa propre imagination, en explorateur et metteur en scène de sa vie, on joue et de jouer, on dit le vrai plus vrai que le vrai."
"We go walking in our own imagination; as explorers and directors of our own lives ; we play-act—and we say that, in this play-acting lies a truth more true than than truth itself."
Jean-Luc Lagarce, October 1994
Theatre is a great art of illusion. We come together and sit in the dark to watch others perform a virtual history. We can see the actor behind the character—but we agree to believe she is the character. We see the stage before us, but we agree to believe it is a parlor in Victorian England or a lonely landscape where two tramps wait for Godot. We know how much time passes as we watch—but we agree that we’ve watched an entire lifetime unfold in front of us. We "suspend our disbelief" and enter into a heightened awareness. We hope to leave with a "truth more true" than the fictional world we’ve just witnessed.
If a play is about theatre and performance, we might find ourselves in an even longer hall of mirrors. Lagarce is at home in this space. Indeed, many of his piecestake place in a performers’ world. Hollywood (1983) explores the American cinema: Nous, les Heros (1993) follows an acting troupe touring Europe in the midst of war; and, in Music Hall (1988) a fading "Artiste " and her two "boys" are getting ready to perform in one of the many rundown spaces they have toured for years. They describe the difficulties of the road—whether one is traveling by air, boat, or (alas!) by foot and the lack of amenities provided at each venue. They reminisce about the early days when there was an audience and no food or liquor permitted in the house. In those long ago days, the stage was not makeshift and actors could play at “a respectable distance” from the crowd. These characters are what one critic has called Lagarce’s “beautiful losers.” He draws them with humor and a tender sensitivity.
Lagarce was certainly familiar with out-of-the way venues. He grew up in Valentigny, a village close to the French border with Switzerland. His parents were working class people, laboring at the Peugeot factory until his father was killed in an accident at work. By the mid 1970s, Lagarce was in Besancon, the capitol of the French-Comte region in eastern France. Here he studied philosophy, writing a treatise on the interplay of political power and theatre throughout the history of western theatre. He also organized an amateur theatre group, La Roulotte (meaning caravan or trailer), which would become professional when Lagarce decided to abandon his philosophy studies and devote his life to theatre. Lagarce was a prolific author—writing over 25 plays, several short stories; and even an opera libretto. Also, he directed such disparate comedies as Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid and Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano.
Lagarce’s output is all the more remarkable considering his short life. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, a time when there was no hope for survival. Seven months after his diagnosis, in Feb.1989, he announced that he had been finding great joy and inspiration in the songs performed by Josephine Baker. By April Music Hall was ready for the stage.
In France, interest in Lagarce’s work grew exponentially after his death. Now, twenty years later, he is one of the most popular playwrights in that country. American audiences, however, still don’t always know what to make of his work. Even though the seminal works of Becket and Ionesco are more than a half-century old, audience members still find alternative (as compared with modern realism) forms of drama troubling. Where is the story? But, in Lagarce, there is not one story—there are layers and layers of stories that weave in and out of the language. For, like his mentor Ionesco, who wrote The Bald Soprano as a "Tragedy of Language." Lagarce writes in a simple, but arresting language that is all his own. In Music Hall, the Artiste and the boys use language to try to reach the truth and to hold on to their own stories. The boys sometimes function like a Greek chorus, elaborating on the utterances of the Artiste—restating her language in repetitions that are not repetitions but new ways of looking at the text. Often, they fail to communicate, but they keep trying, perhaps heeding Becket’s advice to overcome failure by "failing better."
Who are these characters who often speak in the third person and sometimes seem disconnected from themselves even as they dive deeper into their souls?. In the language, we see a multiplicity of identities—the Artiste as a young person with hope; the Artiste as Jean-Luc Lagarce himself; the Artiste as a superstar; the Artiste as a has-been. The boys mirror all the boys who have ever traveled with the Artiste. And, we, the audience, become fragments of their identities as we add our own stories and memories to the play.
Where we are—in both space and time—is constantly shifting. We are at every performance the Artiste has ever staged. We are in the memories of Lagarce. We are
in the old music halls that Josephine Baker played in the 1920s; and in every café where someone is telling their story. As Lagarce says we strive to “cross this barrier of spectators to be in the lights, actors in the tale.”
The great modernist, Marcel Proust, wrote of the passage of time, and the human desire to hold on to that past, which only seems to reveal its beauty in an involuntary memory in the present. Jean-Pierre Sarrazac has written that Lagarce, looks for the space and time where we are « free to move about between the past, present and future.” In his journals he wrote of a dream of returning after death with the freedom to roam through time. Then, he concludes “I would be a very free and very happy man.”
“De temps en temp” --Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker, the Black Venus
If the artiste is one of Lagarce’s “beautiful losers”, Josephine Baker was the epitome of super-star success. She was born in poverty in Missouri and left for New York when she was only fifteen to join the chorus of a Bessie Smith show. Although she found steady work dancing, it was not until she left for Paris in 1925 that she began her swift climb to stardom. All of Paris was in the midst of an obsession for all things “Negro” and Josephine was le jazz hot. France had rules against segregation and African-American performers and writers flocked to Paris in order to achieve success both on and off stage. Her high energy in La Revue Negre charmed and titillated audiences, but it was her dance, La Folie du Jour,” at the Follies Bergere music hall that made her a celebrity. She danced in a skirt consisting of 16 bananas (and little else). Paul Colin’s dynamic rendering of her--all arms and legs in motion, as if she were about to lift right off the page—is the image most closely associated with Josephine.
But the erotic, almost savage young woman was only one of Josephine’s many shifting identities. After World War II, during which she worked for the underground--both in France and then in exile, Josephine reinvented herself as a sophisticated singer, dressed in beautiful evening gowns and with her hair pulled back into an elaborate pony tail. One photograph from this period fuses her past into the present. She stands in profile in a lovely white dress fitted at the waist. Her arms are stretched behind her as if she were about to dance in a ballet. But the very full skirt of the dress is covered with Paul Colin’s inimitable drawing, bringing her past into the present.
Josephine would recreate her image again when she began adopting children of all races and nationalities and dubbing them her “rainbow tribe.” She became the nourishing, wholesome Earth mother. After purchasing a thirteenth century castle in 1947, she refurbished it for her growing family. It subsequently became a tourist stop where visitors could see relics of her younger, wilder days and then roam the grounds to take in an African village built for her many employees and a statue of the Virgin Mary bearing a striking resemblance to the proprietor.
In a life of departures and returns, Josephine came back to America again and again. Sometimes she received a cold reception. At other times, she garnered rave reviews of her performances and appeared in only the best houses to SRO crowds. She became involved in Civil Rights protests in the 1960s. (She is even credited with forcing Miami hotels to desegregate—refusing to perform unless her fellow players could also stay in the best hotels.
Josephine Baker died during a run of her comeback show (titled Josephine) mounted at the Theatre Bobino in Paris. The piece was a retrospective of her life and included a number of her songs and vignettes of her early days, played by younger “Josephines.” Of course, Josephine controlled the story. Josephine opened on April 8, 1975. Opening night was a rousing success. Josephine performed again on April 9, went out with friends after the show, and then went home. The next day she simply fell into a coma during a nap and never woke again. Her last public appearance was in the wee hours of the morning after her April 9th show. She and some friends went to a cabaret for entertainment. The entertainment was the work of a female impersonator named Bobby. He treated Josephine to his own version of her dancing. He wore a skirt made of bananas.